It was a Saturday morning in New York City, in a class taught by Rebbetzin Harris, that the meaning of Rosh Hashanah became so extraordinary to me. I always remembered Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, as a holiday that my Russian Jewish family celebrated with a sense of patriotism, if one could have patriotism for a religion. The cognac and the dancing till the wee hours of the night contributed to the joy of this day. But that’s how us Russian Jews do it. Ignore the shrimp and lobster on the table or the dirty Russian jokes and Rosh Hashanah was, and will always be, a very special day in our family and in our hearts, even if we don’t know what it is we’re celebrating.
In Judaism, Rosh Hashanah represents the day the world was created by G-d. Its customs ask us to go to synagogue, listen to the blow of the ram’s horn (the shofar), dip apples in honey for a sweet New Year, and be merry. For many Jews, especially religious Jews, the event is a two-day affair. However, it’s more than how we might imagine a typical New Year’s Eve.
Like the American New Year’s, Rosh Hashanah is an occasion when we are supposed to make resolutions. In the Bible, the holiday is called Yom Ha-Zikkaron, or the day of remembrance. On Rosh Hashanah, we reflect on our past year, sit with the mistakes we’ve made, and choose how to better ourselves for the following year. While our resolutions can be to lose weight or get a job, because all those things better us, we also focus on our character and how we can become better people to others and ourselves. What Rebbetzin Harris taught me in our Saturday morning class is that not only are we supposed to make such resolutions, I will be kinder, I will not gossip, I will call my family more, but we are supposed to take that extra step and prove to G-d that we can keep our resolutions through the Days of Awe.
A bigger purpose
The Days of Awe, also known as Days of Repentance, last for 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. I call it my 10-day self-improvement boot camp. Yom Kippur is considered the most important day in the Bible and even those who don’t do anything religious the other 364 days of the year will stop, take off of work, and spend the day fasting in synagogue. Yom Kippur is the day of our judgment, a day to atone for our sins and make amends with those we’ve hurt. The beautiful thing about the Days of Awe is that if we commit to our resolutions from Rosh Hashanah, we prove to G-d we are becoming the person G-d sees us to be.
This 10-day period of holiday is symbolic of what Judaism stands for and what I personally love about the religion. The most fascinating piece of Jewish belief I’ve learned to date is the concept of the afterlife. The afterlife is only really addressed in the Zohar, a Kabbalistic text, which discusses the more mystical aspects of Judaism. In it, it is said that when we die we are brought in front of G-d. (Note: What happens next is terrifying so close your eyes if you don’t want to read.) G-d then presents to us the image of the person we “could have been,” in other words, our full potential realized. Then, G-d will ask us why we did not become that person.
This concept or idea can be translated as Teshuva, returning to G-d, which is the goal during Rosh Hashanah. Teshuva reminds us that we should always be growing into our potential in this life. Even when everything we do is for the good of other people, we should still stop to reflect on what else we can do to make ourselves, and the world around us, better. If you’re a mother, it is considered a mitzvah, a commandment in Jewish law, to stop and take care of yourself for a while. Or if you have a deep passion that you’ve suppressed, now is the time to explore it. It’s a mitzvah too to create and leave the world a better place than how you found it.
Growth comes from every direction and what is beautiful about Rosh Hashanah is that it is the biggest reminder to not sit still, to not go backwards or sideways, but to always move forward and become the person you are meant to be.
Now that the holiday is upon us, I have some big-time reflecting to do. This year was a year of many lessons for me, a year that has made me question my passions, my beliefs, and my character. What is my purpose? How does that conflict with the life I lead today? How can I grow into my own skin?
My hope for this coming Rosh Hashanah is that I will find the clarity to become the person only I am meant to be. When the ram horn blows — Tekiah Shevarim Teruah — I will be reminded that judgment is near and it’s now in our hands to help G-d help us.